New technology developed to safely restrain mosquito vectors via sterilization
Leveraging advancements in CRISPR-based genetic engineering, researchers at the University of California San Diego have created a new system that restrains populations of mosquitoes that infect millions each year with debilitating diseases. The new precision-guided sterile insect technique, or pgSIT, alters genes linked to male fertility—creating sterile offspring—and female flight in Aedes aegypti, the mosquito species responsible for spreading wide-ranging diseases including dengue fever, chikungunya and Zika.
“pgSIT is a new scalable genetic control system that uses a CRISPR-based approach to engineer deployable mosquitoes that can suppress populations,” said UC San Diego Biological Sciences Professor Omar Akbari. “Males don’t transmit diseases so the idea is that as you release more and more sterile males, you can suppress the population without relying on harmful chemicals and insecticides.” The work is published in the journal Nature Communications.
pgSIT differs from “gene drive” systems that could suppress disease vectors by passing desired genetic alterations indefinitely from one generation to the next. Instead, pgSIT uses CRISPR to sterilize male mosquitoes and render female mosquitoes, which spread disease, as flightless. The system is self-limiting and is not predicted to persist or spread in the environment, two important safety features that should enable acceptance for this technology. Akbari says the envisioned pgSIT system could be implemented by deploying eggs of sterile males and flightless females at target locations where mosquito-borne disease spread is occurring. “Supported by mathematical models, we empirically demonstrate that released pgSIT males can compete, and suppress and even eliminate mosquito populations,” the researchers note in the Nature Communications paper. “This platform technology could be used in the field, and adapted to many vectors, for controlling wild populations to curtail disease in a safe, confinable and reversible manner.” As envisioned, Akbari says pgSIT eggs can be shipped to a location threatened by mosquito-borne disease or developed at an on-site facility that could produce the eggs for nearby deployment. Once the pgSIT eggs are released in the wild, typically at a peak rate of 100-200 pgSIT eggs per Aedes aegypti adult, sterile pgSIT males will emerge and eventually mate with females, driving down the wild population as needed.
Beyond Aedes aegypti, the researchers believe the pgSIT technology could be directed to other species that spread disease. “This study suggests pgSIT may be an efficient technology for mosquito population control and the first example of one suited for real-world release,” the researchers say.
Source: University of California San Diego news release